[Sinn Fein]

8th February 1999

Community Restorative Justice must be supported

Article by Martin McGuinness MP

There has been an intense focus over recent days on the issue of punishment beatings in both nationalist and unionist areas. It is quite obvious that this issue is being used by rejectionist unionism as another weapon to attack and undermine the Good Friday Agreement and by the British Conservatives to score party political points at Westminster, regardless of the effect that this has on the peace process in Ireland. This entire focus is based on highly dubious statistics from the anti-republican lobby group, FAIT.

One has to question the motives of those who protest with such indignation at punishment attacks while remaining silent on the bombing of catholic families by loyalist death squads or the mass intimidation of the Garvaghy Road community by supporters of the Orange Order.

Those who have recently expressed such interest on the issue have done so out of narrow self interest rather than as a result of real concern for the victims of anti social behaviour or punishment beatings.

Punishment beatings are undoubtedly a real issue, as are the levels of anti-social activity and the existence of a policing vacuum in nationalist areas. Sinn Fein is concerned at the existence of this form of community justice and has been working on the ground to develop alternative approaches which will make punishment attacks a thing of the past. Our approach is in stark contrast to the opportunistic propagandising around the issue which we have witnessed over recent weeks.

In trying to develop alternatives, we have worked with community groups, respected academics and various statutory organisations.

Punishment beatings exist for two main reasons: the absence of an adequate policing service and the rising levels of anti-social behaviour and petty crime.

The RUC is not a normal policing service. They have no credibility in nationalist areas. In some cases they have ignored anti-social behaviour as part of a policy of demoralising these communities, in other cases they have employed anti-social elements as informers in return for immunity from prosecution. This approach has allowed anti-social activity to escalate. So called `joy riding', drug dealing, sexual abuse of children, violent attacks against the community are a reality of life. The absence of proper and credible policing has led local communities to address this activity in their own and often quite brutal ways.

Sinn Fein is totally opposed to punishment attacks. We are working on the ground to prevent this type of rough justice by providing effective alternatives for communities who are tormented by the activities of petty criminals and car thieves. In this we are frequently out of step with local opinion and the popular demand for direct action against criminals and anti-social elements.

Those of us who genuinely want punishment beatings to end are engaged in the development of real alternatives. After two years of consultation and investigation, a series of projects are being piloted in Belfast and Derry based on the concept of Community Restorative Justice. Bringing together the relevant statutory organisations, political parties, community groups and interested residents, they can provide a viable approach to the problems involved.

Ending punishment beatings means putting in place mechanisms for responding to anti-social behaviour. Community Restorative Justice does just that. It is a non-violent community based response to the problems involved.

It recognises the fact that punishment, violent or otherwise, often does little for the victims of crime and further alienates the perpetrator by pushing them back into re-offending.

This approach accepts that anti-social behaviour is best understood as a breakdown in community relationships. Long term solutions require that those relationships be re-built. The causes of crime need to be addressed. Perpetrators need to be reintegrated into the community, not further alienated from it.

The four pilot projects currently up and running are developing a series of mechanism aimed at reducing levels of crime, reducing the social and economic factors which lead to crime, re-integrating the perpetrator into the community and adequately responding to the needs of the victims.

All those who are interested in ending punishment attacks, all those who are interested in reducing the levels of petty crime and eliminating the causes of crime should support Community Restorative projects. They require party political support, community and statutory backing, the support of local communities and crucially adequate resources and financial backing from government.

If those who are currently so vocal on this issue are genuinely concerned for the victims of punishment attacks, or the victims of petty criminals, they would and should support the developing and resourcing of viable alternatives.

But of course this radical approach of non-violently dealing with crime in the community must be seen as complimentary to a proper policing service. Sinn Fein put forward constructive proposals to the Commission on Policing, headed by Chris Patten.

We seek an unarmed, accountable police service which can draw support from the nationalist community and which nationalists can join as well as unionists. This is the only way forward. It is the only way to bring an end to the rough justice currently dealt out to those who engage in anti-social activities.

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